Should Americans Care About Foreign Aid?

Anne Frank once said: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Americans today seem to believe the opposite, viewing foreign aid programs with distrust and resentment. A 2016 Pew poll showed that just 37% of Americans think the U.S. should help other countries.  Political Science professor Darren Hawkins sought to examine these attitudes in a recent Washington Post article detailing an experiment in which he and colleagues tested the elasticity of Americans’ opinions regarding foreign aid. 

What is Foreign Aid and why is it Important?

According to the U.S. government’s foreign assistance website, there are nine categories of foreign aid:

  • Peace & Security
  • Democracy, human rights, & governance
  • Health
  • Education & social services
  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Program management
  • Combination of categories

The Borgen Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that fights extreme poverty by conducting a national campaign among politicians to make poverty a focus of U.S. foreign policy, said that foreign aid is essential because it can assist in educating people, build infrastructure so that the inhabitants of the recipient nation can “be mobile and have access to basic necessities such as electricity and running water,” cultivate a diplomatic relationship between the two countries, and help nations combat terrorism, among other things.

pexels-photo-520222 Americans and Foreign Aid

“Americans are notoriously uninformed on how much their government actually spends on aid,” according to Hawkins. A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that the majority of Americans think the U.S. spends around 26% of the federal budget on foreign aid; in actuality, according to the KFF, the budget is 1% or less.

Why does this misperception exist among Americans? Hawkins lists the reasons people distrust foreign aid as generally falling within these categories:

  • Is expensive
  • Does not work
  • Breeds dependency and conflict
  • Interferes with the free market
  • Loses money to corruption

In an experiment conducted by Hawkins and the co-authors of the Washington Post article, they tested the effects of certain arguments on Americans’ perceptions of foreign aid, and found that those arguments had an effect on those American’s views on foreign aid. These possible counterarguments, along with five facts in support of each counterargument, were provided to the people interviewed in the experiment:

  • Inexpensiveness
  • Effectiveness
  • Chance for a potential positive impact
  • Service to U.S. interests
  • Need

The chart below illustrates the extent to which those interviewees who felt that the U.S. spent too much on foreign aid were influenced by various counterarguments, as opposed to a control group to which no argument was given.

 

darren hawkins chart
Credit: The Washington Post

The results show that the right argument for or against foreign aid can either increase or decrease support for the program. More importantly, it shows that most Americans can change their attitudes about foreign aid when given the correct information.

 

poverty What’s Next?

It’s important to consider the possible ramifications of Hawkin’s study and Americans’ perceptions of foreign aid as President Trump has recently made significant funding cuts to U.S. foreign aid to other countries in his recently released budget. This cut was instituted to pave the way for “a new foundation that places America first by returning more American dollars home and ensuring foreign aid supports American interests and values.” According to Hawkins, et. al. the president’s proposed budget cuts the funding to the State Department, in charge of USAID, by almost 30%.

For instance, Newsweek reports that African Development Bank president, Akinwumi Adesina, said that if U.S. aid to Africa is cut, the continent could become “a recruiting field for terrorists.” In Central Asia, cuts to foreign aid could also have a potentially large impact. The elimination of two programs—Assistance for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia (AEECA), and the Development Assistance—could make the region to be susceptible to Communist China’s influence, according to Alyssa Ayres, a Forbes contributor. After analyzing the FY18 Control Levels and Foreign Policy, she concluded that “…these proposed changes could paradoxically undermine the U.S. ability to shape objectives in the region. Moreover, at a time of massive Chinese assistance flooding the region, savings achieved through scrounging comparatively small levels of assistance will leave Washington with a shrunken profile and a shallower footprint.”

Former President George W. Bush’s USAID Administrator, Andrew Natsios spoke to Trump’s cuts: “[Cutting the budget] will end the technical expertise of USAID, and in my view, it will be an unmitigated disaster for the longer term…I predict we will pay the price. We will pay the price for the poorly thought out and ill-considered organization changes that we’re making, and cuts in spending as well.”

poverty 2 Changing Opinions

Americans are refreshingly rational about adjusting their opinions,” said Hawkins. “….On this particular issue…there seems [to be]a clear prescription: If you want to get Americans to support government spending on foreign aid, tell them how little the government currently spends.” After examining the facts, understanding the arguments for and against aid, and studying the issue, Americans can become more informed about aid and the potential damage that can come from a budget reduction.

Should we support foreign aid?

Feature image courtesy of Blue Diamond Gallery.